Davis Farmers Market continues, adds precautions

What’s wrong with City staff’s new burrowing owl policy

A response to Ash Feeney

Feeney-with-owlsBy Roberta Millstein

A few days ago I learned of a new policy from City staff concerning the 25 acres outside of Mace curve, aka Mace 25, prime farmland that was purchased with citizen tax dollars from the open space fund.  According to this new policy, the City will not be mowing areas in which burrowing owls are already nesting, instead allowing the owls to be “naturally displaced from the site… by allowing tall dense vegetation to grow along the western edge.”  By not mowing, the City will be “doing what it can to prevent the owls from using the site.” Burrowing owls prefer short grasses (e.g., native short prairie grass or grass that is kept short through mowing) so that they can see their predators coming, and they will leave an area if the grasses aren’t short.

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, I along with a number of other citizens attended to protest this new policy and to ask the City Council to direct staff to promote burrowing owl habitat at that site.  Burrowing owls, it should be noted, have been designated as a Species of Special Concern by the State of California, and their numbers have been declining dramatically over the past 10 years in the Davis area.  No action was taken at the meeting, although I have since learned that at least one Councilmember is in favor of taking up this issue at a future meeting.

What did happen at the meeting was that Assistant City Manager Ash Feeney defended the new policy.  He has apparently issued a statement summarizing his views, published on the Davis Vanguard (staff could not confirm this by the end of yesterday’s business day).  Unfortunately, this response contains false and problematic statements.

First, some background.  The Mace 25 has been in limbo for quite a number of years (see here for history).  It was part of the withdrawn “Mace Ranch Innovation Center” proposal, and it is part of the new and revised 200 acre ARC business park proposal, also on prime farmland.  The ARC developers have proposed to use 6.8 acres of the 25 acres along its southern and eastern edge to satisfy the City’s agricultural buffer ordinance.  (That in itself is problematic – that they are proposing to use the City’s farmland to buffer the rest of the City’s farmland – but that topic is for another day). 

Photo of burrowing owls on Mace 25 by R. Millstein, 8/2017

In the meantime, the land is been leased to a farmer, and for a number of years now, burrowing owls have been living along its western edge.   There are even signs noting the presence of the burrowing owls and urging drivers to drive slowly. IMG_4039-burrowingowlsign-cropped

It is also worth noting that policy has not been presented to the Open Space and Habitat Commission (OSHC), and consequently, the OSHC has not had an opportunity to discuss or weigh in on the policy, much less the City Council.  City staff developed this policy entirely on their own without outside input.

Back to Ash Feeney’s statement.  Feeney points out that “There is no habitat easement or official destination for the property.”  That much is true.  Back in January 2019, the OSHC recommended:  “The Mace 25 Open Space Site should be used for a community farm, or wildlife habitat (i.e., for burrowing owls and Swainson’s hawks), or open space public access/recreation, or a combination of these uses.”  However, the City failed to act on the OSHC’s recommendations (and earlier, similar recommendations from the OSHC), leaving Mace 25 in limbo.

He further claims that “It would be irresponsible to promote a sensitive wildlife species to use a site where they could potentially be placed in harm’s way (i.e. an adjacent development application is under review where, though not agreed to, a portion of the property is being sought for an ag buffer.”  That the burrowing owls would be in danger from ARC, as currently proposed, contradicts what I was told in January (while on a site visit to the Wildhorse ag buffer to discuss grass lengths for burrowing owls) by the City’s wildlife biologist, John McNerney, and it makes sense – there would still be more than 18 acres of the Mace 25 remaining.  That is quite a bit of space, certainly far more space than the owls have at the Wildhorse Ag Buffer.

It should also be pointed out that Feeney is saying that the owls should be given a “passive deterrent through not mowing the property” because of a possible business park that is still under review – the Supplemental Environmental Impact Report is still being prepared, numerous commissions need to review it, and the City Council needs to place it on the ballot for a Measure J/R vote.  So, he is proposing to keep the owls “safe” by “passively” ejecting them from their burrows… to have them go… somewhere?  Where?  The Wildhorse Ag Buffer that Feeney mentions is not very close, and is (according to what I was told by John McNerney) poor burrowing owl habitat because of the adjacent orchard, walking path used by humans and dogs, and golf course.  The reality is the loss of their current burrows might mean that the owls die or fail to reproduce this season, further stressing an already very challenged population.

Most egregiously, he states that “The area the owls have been using is right next to Mace, which is a terrible place for young chicks.”  This is false.  The owls have been using burrows that are adjacent to a county road that gets very little traffic and is a considerable distance (from an owl’s point of view) from Mace Blvd.  No part of Mace 25 borders on Mace Blvd. As noted previously, the owls have been doing fine in this area for a number of years.

So yes, although the City should act to protect the Mace 25, perhaps through an easement with the Yolo Habitat Conservancy, there is no legitimate justification for deliberately urging the owls away from the western border of the Mace 25.  Keeping that area mowed – whether by done by the City, the farmer, the County, or the Burrowing Owl Preservation Society – is not that big an ask for a Species of Special Concern who is rapidly disappearing from Davis.

Now that City staff’s no-mow policy has come to light, I will be looking for the OSHC to agendize it as soon as possible and make a recommendation.  In the meantime, staff needs to preserve the status quo – to protect the homes and health of the owls – by keeping the grass in the area short enough (4-6 inches).

If you are concerned about this issue, I urge you to email the City Council at to let them know your thoughts.


Roberta Millstein is Chair of the Open Space and Habitat Commission; however, the views expressed here are her own and should not be taken to be the views of other members of the Commission.


Colin Walsh

It is like Orwellian double think, “we as learned humans have decided the place the burrowing owls have chosen to live for years is unsafe and order them to leave their homes immediately. If they die in the process it was for their own good.”
Please write the Davis City Council, the City Staff and the Davis Enterprise and urge immediate action to protect the Burrowing Owls.

Donna Lemongello

I am so sick of this stealth BS they pull and "then it's too late" and there is no recourse, been here before.

Roberta L. Millstein

Exactly, Donna. At the meeting, Ash Feeney suggested that we could revisit this for burrowing owl habitat after ARC has been decided on, by which point all of the burrowing owls would be gone. :(

Steve Kahn


Who asks staff to come up with these ideas? Sounds to me as if they are developer driven. I'm hoping we can vote in a new City
Council that puts a stop to this behind the scenes slight of hand, and to reprimand anyone who engages in such acts.

Steve Kahn

Karen L Baker

I wrote to the city council regarding the burrowing owls, and this is the response I got(BTW, this answer did not "allay my concerns."):
Dear Karen-

Thank you for sharing your interest and concern for our local wildlife resources. Unfortunately, there has been some distorted information disseminated to the community recently. I can assure you that the City of Davis staff and Council, on behalf of the citizens, give full regard to wildlife and other biological resources when considering the environmental impacts of any land development proposal. This remains equally true for the proposed ARC project.

The City of Davis has long-standing policy in place that is far stronger in protecting local burrowing owls than what state or federal wildlife regulations require. Full and ecologically meaningful mitigation is always required, from a developer, where wildlife or their habitats stand to be impacted. City land management staff work with the city’s wildlife biologist to protect owls where they occur on city owned properties when it’s ecologically sound to do so. If there are owls on City lands, and those lands contain obvious hazards that put those individuals at risk (ex. next to roads, residential areas with dogs and cats, areas with incompatible land use designations, etc.), we’ll passively encourage those owls to seek safer and more productive habitat. All of this is done in support of increasing reproductive success in hope of boosting local and regional burrowing owl populations.

I hope this information helps to allay your concerns, and I thank you for sharing them.

Kind regards,

Roberta L. Millstein

Thank you for sharing that, Karen.

It very much bothers me that the supposed "distorted information" is not identified.

It also bothers me that none of the above addresses the concern with the new policy or the concern over how the new policy was developed without consulting anyone outside of staff.

For a number of years now, City policy let these owls alone -- even encouraging the farmer to mow carefully around the burrows. What has changed to now so that this area has been deemed hazardous enough that it is somehow "safer" to "passively encourage" them to leave their burrows (where "passively encourage" means make their burrows unusable given the long grass)? Even if that means they might die or fail to reproduce this season?

I can see why the response did not allay your concerns!

Steven Kahn

A Civic Suggestion:

The city is strapped for money and, I think, are our schools. It's time for Davis citizens to step up and help out.

I suggest a group of us, Davis citizens, meet at the Burrowing Owl site in question with our lawn mowers and mow the area to the desired height and save the city time and money.

Something like Many Mowers Sunday.

What do you think?

Roberta L. Millstein

The Burrowing Owl Preservation Society has offered to volunteer many times, but for one reason or another it rarely pans out.

Catherine Portman

The city of Davis has an unequivocally dismal history of doing nothing for Burrowing Owls. I have 20 years experience with the city's' mismanagement of burrowing Owl habitat. The Burrowing Owl Reserve at grasslands Park is mitigation for the habitat that was destroyed for mace ranch housing. Even though the Reserve had a management plan that is a legal requirement, signed by the city, they still never kept the vegetation within the specifications (4 to 5 inches) of the plan. The 3 1/2 acre burrowing Owl "coral" at Mace Park on Alhambra had a couple breeding pair for about thee years. The city allow the vegetation to grow 5 feet tall before they put the goats in. So the owls left. I have been asking the city to keep the vegetation down at Wildhorse Ag buffer for a little more than 10 years. Mitch Sears and John McNerney told me and Pam Nieberg that the Ag buffer was not intended to be managed for a single species. So, I asked to see the management plan. Turned out, there was none. A draft management plan for Wildhorse Ag buffer is anticipated for OSHC next meeting April,which will include 4.3 acres to be managed for Burrowing owls. So, in my experience, the city's "no mow" "and the owls will go away" policy is neither a secret nor new. It has been in full force and effect for the 20 years since the disking of the owls into the ground at Mace Ranch housing development
In addition to the no mow policy, the city certified an initial study, mitigated negative declaration as the appropriate level of environmental (CEQA)review for a project, the Marriott , with a special status species on site! That alone is wrong. But the mitigations were not mitigations . One of the mitigations the city accepted was a preconstruction survey, which is someone walking ahead of the tractor to be sure there's no owl. The other mitigation they accepted was passive relocation (eviction) which the California Department of Fish and wildlife says is a potential significant impact. The city's CEQA lead agency failures can have an equally devastating affect on the Owl population. So Burrowing Owl Preservation Society had to sue the city. The city refused to negotiate with us over thei CEQA failures.
BTW: in response to Mr Feeney's remarks. The installation of an artificial Burrow on Mace 25 could move the owls farther away from the road. The owls at the Marriott site routinely flew over Mace Boulevard to forage. The owls chose that site for reasons of their own, most likely because there are so few burrows available to them. One simple act on our part could keep them from being hit in the road and increase the reproductive success ( as demonstrated by science)

Alan Hill

The city also eradicated the rabbits who made their home in Mace Park by discing them and burying them alive. How humane was that? I think Mc Nerney ... well, never mind.

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